The conjunction of our own Independence Day with the dramatic events in Egypt makes it difficult for thoughtful Americans to avoid serious questions about democracy and legitimacy. One question revolves around the extent to which political movements that regard democratic institutions as merely a vehicle for the establishment of a non-democratic regime can be tolerated in a functioning democracy. That’s sometimes called the “Hitler question,” but it’s complicated by the fact that most political movements have a conditional commitment to democracy; that is one reason we have written and unwritten constitutions.
A second question is a bit more immediate: is it ever possible to suspend democratic norms in order to “save democracy?” Or is the very idea just sophistry?
Virtually every democratic society has accepted “state of emergency” circuit-breakers for democratic procedures and constitutional protections. And many have accommodated major disruptions that nonetheless seem justifiable in terms of the long-term survival of democratic government (e.g., the American Civil War and Reconstruction, England’s Glorious Revolution). But the lines get separating “emergencies” from abuses of power and/or revolutionary violence get hazy really fast.
Right now the Obama administration is being forced to decide whether what happened in Egypt yesterday was a “military coup;” if so, it is legally required to cancel, as least temporarily, assistance to the Egyptian military, amounting to $1.5 billion a year. Maintaining that it was not a coup requires some fancy rationalizations about the speed with which civilian rule will be restored and fresh elections held, and/or some more serious evidence of constitutional violations by the Morsi government. On the other hand, suspending aid would produce an explosion of anti-American sentiment in Egypt (where those supporting the ouster of Morsi had long complained of U.S. support for his government) threatening its primary purpose, regional stability (or more particularly, continuation of Egyptian-Israeli detente).
A legalistic suspension of U.S. aid makes far less sense than the quiet use of the threat of a termination of aid to encourage the military to make good on its pledges for a new constitution and speedy elections. Publicly, however, a “flexible” approach means adopting a definition of “military coup” that in turn makes our commitment to democracy highly conditional. That’s quite a slippery issue the president will have to deal with over his July 4 “holiday.”